Eegee's CEO, James Vaughn & Shane Reiser (Photo courtesy of Eegee's)

All Your Eegee’s Questions Answered (VIDEO)


June 28, 2024
By Shane Reiser
By Shane Reiser

Eegee’s reached out to us last month asking if Tucson Foodie would like to interview their CEO, Jason Vaughn. Their goal? To introduce Jason to the community, shed some light on the evolution of Eegee’s food and brand, and introduce us to some new menu items rolling out soon.

Eegee’s may no longer be locally owned, but it holds a special place in the hearts of Tucsonans.

And so we took the opportunity to gather questions from our Instagram audience to ask Jason.

The good news is that I asked him everything (even the tough ones about food quality decline) and he answered everything, and honestly. I found it refreshing. Kinda like an Eegee’s.

Here’s my interview with Eegee’s CEO, Jason Vaughn:

Q: Let’s get to know you. Tell us about yourself.

Jason: “I’ve been in the restaurant industry a little over 30 years. I’ve worked for big brands, which I just loved. They afforded me so much development and growth and learned so much.

“Then after an extended period of time in big brands, I wanted to be part of local communities, smaller brands. Maybe one that had a little rust on it, one looking to go in a different direction, and where you can get in there and just be part of the community and make decisions, go quick, and really watch it evolve and grow.

“That’s my quick professional background. I’m also a father, husband, and grandfather–grandfather being the best job in the world.”

Q: What specifically excited you about Eegee’s when you decided to join?

Jason: “What draws me to a brand like Eegee’s is, ‘Do you believe in the product? Do you believe in the brand?’ It’s not just, ‘Hey, we’re going to try to grow it.’ It’s the quality of it, the belief in what you’re handing people, giving them a quality product.

“And it’s the relationship with fans. Tucson fans feel like they are part owners of this brand, which I think is great. I’ve worked in another brand like that before. When people care that much and you have a great brand, there’s a lot you can do there, a lot of good growth opportunities. That’s what excites me about Eegee’s.”

Innovations and Changes

Q: I understand you’ve been the CEO of Eegee’s for two years now. What’s the first change you made at Eegee’s?

Jason: “The first 60 days I made no changes. I just observed. What’s going on? Why is it happening? Some things were obviously decided before I got here, and other decisions I’ve had to make.

“The biggest change was talking about how we innovate and elevate Eegee’s. An example, a couple of months ago we put mango on as an everyday flavor. We knew we wanted the community to be involved, so we put out a vote. Over 28,000 people voted on a flavor. There was no rigged election, I promise you – it was mango. I counted every vote and there it was. So the community got involved and told us what they wanted. We got to listen and then we made it an everyday flavor. That’s the first time Eegee’s had done that in over 40 years.”

Q: There have been a lot of changes. Can you shed some light on some of the changes that came before you, and how you think about what changes to make today?

Jason: “In 1971, when Ed and Bob started this, Tucson wasn’t the same size. The same amount of restaurants weren’t here. It was also a different financial situation. As special as Eegee’s is, we’re not immune to inflation, wage‑rate compression, or wage‑rate growth dictated to us by the government. We have to assimilate that into our business model. That either forces us to change or tweak what we’re doing, while making sure that we continue to provide great customer service and great food.

“If you look at some of the brands that have come into Tucson that compete with Eegee’s, we know some of our Eegee’s fans go to them, too. At those places, they can customize their drinks in ways they haven’t been able to do at Eegee’s. If you go to coffee shops today, you can put anything in and take anything out, stand it on its head, whether it’s ice cream shops, sorbet, coffee, whatever.

“Meanwhile, the flavors at Eegee’s have mostly stayed the same. Some of our fans want them to stay the same, but then generations grow up that don’t want the same thing. How do you be everything to everybody? I’m not sure that you can. You just have to be true to yourself, true to the brand, and serve what you think is best, and always with a smile.

“We’ve been embarking on a new customization strategy where you can add optional toppings in different combinations to your Eegee’s. We’ve rolled out a little bit of it over the last few months, and you’re going to see more of it here in the future. I’m looking forward to sharing some of that with you as we go forward.”

Q: Let’s go deeper on that. What should people expect next from Eegee’s?

Jason: “I think it’s the continued innovation of Eegee’s. You can expect more flavors of the month, more flavor pops, more different types of toppings, and some food innovation as well. We’ve got Tajín fries coming out in a couple of weeks.

“We’d like to bring back some classics, so we are out listening to our veteran guests to understand what they’d like to see again.

“Pretzels would be another one. We did bring pretzels back a few months ago, and they’re doing great. Other things we brought back that our guests asked for, didn’t do so great. Some of those nostalgic legacy items work, some don’t.

“One thing I know I can’t compete with is someone’s memory, right? It was a part of their childhood or teenage years. I’m so glad that they hold on to those Eegee’s memories, but I can’t turn time back to 1971. We just have to deal with the circumstances that we have today and make it the best version of Eegee’s that we can in 2024 and beyond.”

Expansion

Q: Eegee’s has expanded to Phoenix and California. How’s it going?

Jason: “It’s going great! We had one woman post that she was up on the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier. She looked down and saw the Eegee’s sign, took a picture, and posted, ‘Oh, my gosh. My dream came true.'”

Q: Did you have a big part in the decision to open a location in California?

Jason: “Yes, I did. The Eegee’s on Santa Monica Pier is not a full-fledged Eegee’s. It’s a concession stand. We’re just selling the drink. We have so many people in California that know the brand.

“I want people in Tucson to know the power of the brand that Ed and Bob built. We get two or three requests every month to expand to a different city or state across the country. When we find an opportunity like Santa Monica Pier, we’re going to take it because it was a large population that knows us out there, people love it, and they’re posting about it, they’re sending us emails about it, they’re grateful we’re there.

“In‑N‑Out was never going to just stay in California, now they’re out everywhere and they’ve been able to stay true to who they are. We’re not going to be any different. We know it’s Tucson-based. We want to carry that Tucson legacy into these other towns and cities as we expand. I think Eegee’s exports Tucson in a very positive, healthy way. I just hope people from Tucson can find a way to be proud about taking a special, unique brand and product that other people get to try. I think that’s special, and everybody doesn’t get to do that in Tucson, and that’s what Eegee’s is doing.

“We’re also not leaving Arizona. We signed a 20‑year lease in a new office to stay here. This is home, this is where we want to be.”

Q: Last year, you closed a couple of restaurants. Can you explain why that decision was made?

Jason: “Absolutely. It wasn’t due to financial struggles; in fact, we were doing quite well. The decision was about strengthening our portfolio and ensuring our brand’s longevity. We’re focused on making decisions that will keep our brand thriving for the next 40 years, not just the next two. Several factors influenced our decisions. For instance, we approached landlords about remodeling, but they weren’t on board. Additionally, the areas around those restaurants were declining. Since we have many locations close to each other, we could move the business from one restaurant to another.

“We’re focused on responsible, methodical growth. It’s not about rapid expansion; it’s about growing sustainably. For instance, in Tucson, we might open new spots if it makes sense. However, we recognize we’re a small brand with a significant presence here. That’s why we closed some restaurants — our business moved to other locations, and we made more money as a result. Every decision is about sustaining the brand and paving the way for future growth.

“Importantly, we ensured that employees from the closed locations were offered jobs elsewhere.”

Q: How does Eegee’s stay connected with the Tucson community as you grow?

Jason: “Last year, we reached out to over 200 communities through volunteering, discounts, and providing food for charity events. We might not always advertise it, but we’re there, supporting local causes.”

Q: How can you export Tucson’s reputation at the national level in a way that honors us and also honors Eegee’s legacy?

Jason: “Great question. I think there’s imagery and then there’s culture. We’ve got Tucson’s desert skyline on our cups. That carries forward. That’s the easy part. But if you don’t act and feel like Tucson, then it’s not authentic.

“Tucson is… I call it an asymmetrical town or an asymmetrical city, and I mean that as a compliment. We don’t try to be like everybody else. It’s just got its own vibe, its own way of living, and that’s what makes this place special. It’s about the people we hire and the attitude we hire and how that comes across to our guests.

“When you go into an Eegee’s, you’re not walking into another QSR (quick-service restaurant) where the staff reads from a script. Our team dresses a little bit different. Our team has a little bit different hair colors. That’s Tucson. That’s the vibe. We embrace that. We love that. To me, it’s just about an attitude and a culture that gets out in these other communities. They walk in and see us a little bit different. That’s Tucson.”

Fan Questions

Q: What’s the deal with the bread?

Jason: “One thing I want people to understand is that the original owners changed the bread 10 times over the past 15 years because of the availability of ingredients. For example, if a brand of sugar goes out of business, you’re now forced to pick something else. You might think it’s just sugar, but it’s going to be a little bit different, and as other companies over time go out of business, more and more ingredients change. It wasn’t the recipe that changed. When you put four new ingredients in a product, it becomes a different product.

“And it wasn’t just the ingredients. When you think about a bakery, a true bakery, you want the conditions to be consistent. Humidity the same, the temperature the same, environment the same. The warehouse where Eegee’s was making its bread over the past few years didn’t provide that consistency. We were getting comments as the seasons changed about our bread because dough performs differently in different temperatures in a different environment. It’s falling apart, it’s cracking, etc.

“So, we said, ‘Okay, we have to address the bread issue.’

“We recently partnered with Capistrano’s Bakery, a family-owned business in Arizona, and started testing a new bread in select locations. We’ve been receiving great feedback. Some guests are saying, ‘Hey, this is the bread we like. This seems like what it originally was.’ I just want to caution them that, although we’re trying, we can never get you back to 1971. I wish I could, but I can’t.

“What I can tell you is that we take it very seriously. We care about it, but we didn’t want to just whiplash our guests. We didn’t want to jump from this bread to this bread to this bread and trial and error. Bread is our north star at Eegee’s. This return to the original bread recipe is actually going to cost us more money, not less. It needs to be fresh and locally sourced.

“The customer feedback has to be through the roof. I feel good about the feedback we’ve gotten so far, and our team is excited to roll it out statewide.”

Q: I’ve been in Tucson for 10 years. When I first tried Eegee’s, I think that I remember chunks of fruit. People on our Instagram want to know about the decisions to reduce fruit and increase artificial flavors and colors.

Jason: “We just had a conversation a couple of weeks ago about this. I don’t know when we took out big chunks of fruit, but we are in fact looking at how we put more fruit in.

“Some of our flavors, like the cotton candy flavor pop that came out last year, was never meant to have fruit in it.

“The artificial coloring, that’s probably not going to go away. That’s how we differentiate the different profiles that we do. Strawberry is probably going to have a coloring in it that’s going to make it look like strawberry. Grape is probably going to have purple in it that’s going to make it look like grape. We’re not going to go away from artificial flavoring or coloring like that, but we are absolutely looking at how can we create a line that’s more health-conscious.

“We have a Skinny Berry, although it doesn’t sell very well. I think most people come to us for a sugary treat that they love and get energy from.”

Q: The vegan community in Tucson is huge. We run a festival called the Vegan Night Market and we have 4,000 people come to us four times a year. It’s massive. We had a lot of vegan fans ask for more vegan-friendly options.

Jason: “Some of our products might already be vegan, but we’re working on more transparency for that. We’re also already working on more vegan options. If you have specific requests or ideas, let us know and I’ll see what I can do. I’d be willing to meet with people that live vegan. I’m open to listening to what we might be able to offer to the vegan community.”

Q: Any plans for more sustainable packaging?

Jason: “Absolutely. We are committed to finding sustainable solutions that work with our product. We have a frozen beverage in a very hot area. Styrofoam does seem to work the best. Santa Monica Pier is our test site for plastic cups instead of Styrofoam. I think it might end up being more of a stadium‑type cup we’re probably going to have to go to. We’re testing that as well. It’s a little bit thicker and denser versus the thinner clear cup, but we like the clear because you can see the colors.

“It’s a journey, but we’re on it.”

Q: What’s the future of Munchees?

Jason: “At the same four stores we’ve been testing the new bread at, we’re testing Munchees. We’ve been testing boba, we’ve been testing gummies, some sprinkles, and they’ve been going great. Our legacy fans may not want Munchees, but it’s been on the most common requests from the new generation of Eegee’s fans.

“The good news is, we’re not going to force it on people’s Eegee’s. If you want to customize your Eegee’s, it’s there if you want it.”

Q: Everybody wants watermelon all year. Come on, man.

Jason: “Yeah, I know, right? I don’t blame them, it’s great. There’s two things about that. One, it’s seasonal. We can’t get the ingredients for 12 months to sustain it. We use real watermelon. So we just can’t do it. Two, we have been able to expand it. We now start offering it May through July, instead of just July. That’s the best we can do. It’s selling great.”

Q: Cookie of the month?

Jason: “Here’s what I’m going to say about that. At the bakery in Arizona, the baker was one of the people who had the original recipes for the Eegee’s cookie. We found them. I would look for that original cookie sometime in the fall — freshly baked. We’re on it.”

Q: We had multiple comments about different size sandwiches, and how you’ve reduced the size. People want their four, eight, or twelve-inch options.

Jason: “That was just an operational choice. That’s on me. I made the choice to go to half and whole versus three different sizes. There was a lot of waste. It took longer to train. This was a true profitability play, and it made it easier for his team.”

Q: How about the kid’s size? A lot of adults like the kid’s size.

Jason: “The kid’s size is back. They’re selling great. Yeah, we brought it back. Part of the reason it went away was availability. During COVID, we couldn’t source a branded kid’s cup. But now it’s back!”

Q: Have you heard of the Freedom Chili Dog?

Jason: “I have. I love the Freedom Chili Dog. We brought back chili last year after our fans asked for it. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the chili dog reappear in the fall.

Eegee’s CEO, Jason Vaughn (Photo courtesy of Eegee’s)

All photos courtesy of Eegee’s. For Eegee’s locations and more information, visit eegees.com.

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